With a title taken from an interview with Jeff Wall by Lucas Blalock, ‘You are Looking at Something that Never Occurred’ is yet another attempt aiming to challenge the idea that photography identifies with reality and objectivity.
Like the MET’s 2016 show ‘Grand Illusions: Staged Photography from the Met Collection’ and the J. Paul Getty Museum’s 2010 publication ‘Photography as Fiction”’, it showcases a variety of photographs created by means of appropriation, manipulation and staging. The exhibition’s affinity to this curatorial trend is so strong, in fact, that it begins in the same way as the V&A’s 2015 version ‘Making it up: Photographic Fiction’, with an iconic ‘Untitled Film Still’ by Cindy Sherman.
Modeling striped playsuit and open-toe slippers, Sherman poses in a modernist summer villa mimicking a familiar and yet unidentifiable iconic Hollywood movie heroine. The deliberately artificial look of her self-portrait playfully links Sherman to the nearby photographs by Christopher Williams and Richard Prince, who are also taking their images out of context to explore the relationship between fiction and fact in photography’s commercial uses. Prince’s deployment of appropriated advertisements to comment on consumerism echoes concurrently Sara Cwynar’s video and photographs, which are located around the corner.
In the centre of the main room hangs Jeff Wall’s ‘Still Creek, Vancouver, winter 2003’, one of the artist’s infamous large-format transparencies on a light box.
Wall’s inclusion into the show – an artist best known for manipulating his images in postproduction to create daydreams – is not surprising; what is difficult to grasp, however, is the reason why this particular work was chosen to represent him. It is true ‘Still Creek’ is an unusual revisit of the outdoors set where Wall had staged his allegorical photograph ‘The Drain’ fourteen years earlier but there is nothing fictional or constructed about this actual work.
The following video of James Turrell’s magnus opus ‘Roden Crater’ by Erin Shirreff redirects the exhibition’s narrative away from the overt realism of Wall’s light box by questioning the ways we perceive the world around us. Shirrefff tricks the mind into thinking it is looking at the seasonal transition of a volcanic landscape from winter to summer and back again to winter. Look closely and you will realise that the time-lapse seasonal cycle that takes place actually involves a still image of Turrell’s crater on which Shirreff projected a range of lighting effects.
Slightly playful, slightly serious, the next gallery is dominated by a trompe l’oeil body of work too. Yet Lucas Blalock’s constructs his compositions via Photoshop as he digitally cuts out his images in strategic areas creating windows that reveal the image underneath. The complex layering of his resulting prints resembles a hybrid between a contemporary take on Dada’s photomontage technique and Calum Colvin’s surreal assembled tableaux of objects.
The exhibition ends with a room divided into three parts, the first bringing together the two Dusseldorf School photographers Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff, the next devoted exclusively to Wolfgang Tillmans’ ‘Berlin Installation, 1995-2000’ and the last shared by Natalie Czech, Elad Lassry, Anne Collier and Sara VanDerBeek. Although Gursky’s epic digitally manipulated prints raise key questions about photographic truth contributing largely to the exhibition’s quest, the blurred line between reality and artifice has not been a central concern of either Ruff’s or Tillman’s works. To a very large degree, rendering strange the familiar, as exemplified by both his massive-scale portraits and enlarged low-res online jpegs, is especially important for Ruff. There is indeed an intense sense of awkwardness in scrutinising a blown-up passport photo of a complete stranger like ‘Stoya’, while the noticeable pixels in ‘jpeg ny15’ are assessable and grid-like squares that appear to be able to measure such inestimable and irrational tragedies as 9/11. Similar to Ruff’s close-up portraits, Tillmans’ snapshots of his immediate milieu invite us to see into the intimate world of others. Such a high level of veracity can be unsettling and yet reminds us that all we are viewing is straight documents.
Quite how Ruff and Tillmans’ work fulfills the topic of photographic fiction is anyone’s guess. This debatable selection points to the weakness of themed exhibitions based on artworks that are dawn from a single source, not least when other practices that rebel against realism like camera-less experimentation are all but omitted from the show. What ‘You are Looking at Something that Never Occurred’ does make clear, however, is that the Zabludowiczs’ Methodist chapel houses some of contemporary photography’s most celebrated pieces, those that even Tate Modern would find desirable.